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Digital library education lab.

Digital Library Education

Since digital libraries emerged as an interdisciplinary field of study in the early 1990s, many LIS schools have added courses on digital libraries to their curricula. Several research reports have provided results of surveys on how the area of digital libraries was taught in various schools. Spink and Cool (1999) discussed the content of courses offered by 20 different schools and suggested a curriculum model for LIS schools. A survey by Saracevic and Dalbello (2001) indicated that more than 89% of ALA-accredited programs have various forms of digital library courses or content. Saracevic and Dalbello used a broad definition of digital libraries and reviewed course titles, course descriptions and course syllabi. More recently, Pomerantz, Oh, Yang, Fox, and Wildemuth(2006) identified a core set of content for digital library education through the analysis of readings from the syllabi of more than 40 digital libraries courses. Pomerantz et al. found that 52% of accredited LIS programs offer courses with the phrase "digital library" or "digital libraries" in the title. The definition of the term digital library will influence the results of an analysis of this nature, but clearly the majority of LIS programs cover digital libraries in the curriculum.

Data for all three research projects listed above were collected through surveys and analysis of course descriptions, syllabi and readings, so their results were focused on course content. There were also discussions and debates in the literature of what should be covered in digital library education (Brancolini & Mostafa, 2006). The general conclusion is that digital library (DL) education should no longer be considered a special topic but an integrated part of LIS education. Discussions of DL education need to go beyond content and examine its goals and methodologies. Like LIS classes in other areas of the curriculum, DL classes must provide a balance of theory and practice with opportunities for hands-on practice. A needed objective of DL courses is to improve the ability of students to learn and master new technologies and services in the ever-changing digital environment, or the "computational sense" as described by Twidale and Nichols (2009).

The most familiar laboratory for hands-on practice in LIS programs is the cataloging laboratory, where students apply cataloging theory while gaining cataloging experience. Romero (1995, p. 11) noted this, particularly linking cataloging laboratories to active learning and emphasizing that the laboratory environment allows instructors and students to share the responsibility of learning. In a laboratory environment, instructors can set the objectives and goals and design practice projects that are as real as possible.

Some LIS schools have or had, within the school, a library dedicated to LIS education. Such libraries are often used as a laboratory to let LIS students practice all aspects of library operations, from staffing the circulation desk to cataloging and providing reference service. It is an excellent environment for students to practice what they learn in class. Due to budgeting and management issues, such libraries have become increasingly difficult to operate in the physical world. The development of digital libraries might be seen as a new opportunity to set up a similar environment for students to learn and practice their knowledge.

Reference is another area that is often associated with hands-on practice in various ways. Mon et al. (2008) identified two types of hands-on experiences used in digital reference education: direct experiences, in which students answered remote reference questions from real users or asked questions remotely of real librarians; and simulated experiences, in which students participated in remote reference scenarios through role playing exercises. Reference courses often require students to provide answers to reference questions or perform online searches. Some programs incorporate role-playing exercises that involve reference interview techniques; some present students with "real" patrons for whom students provide answers to questions, often in the form of online searches. A digital library education laboratory can provide good opportunities for students to work with real reference questions from real patrons.

Collaborative learning is essential in today's online learning environment. LIS students used to be able to mingle in the "library school library" to collaborate and share their learning experience. Distance students need a digital space for the same purpose. Kouzes, Myers, and Wulf (1996) describe the emergence of the concept of collaboratories as environments that allow collaboration without regard to geographic boundaries. This concept has been adopted by some iSchools. Cogburn (2003) defines collaboratories as "more than an elaborate collection of information and communications technologies; it is a new networked organizational form that also includes social processes; collaboration techniques; formal and informal communication; and agreement on norms, principles, values, and rules" (p. 86). This definition can be applied to the digital library education lab we describe in this paper.

The Digital Library Lab

We believe that a digital library education lab will be an excellent enhancement to digital library education and LIS education in general. The lab needs to be carefully designed, however, and the principles of the digital lab need to be studied. In the following, we first highlight some principles that we consider essential to the development of a digital library education lab in the LIS education environment. In the next section, we will describe the special functions and features of the digital library labs that we are currently building through the Internet Public Library (IPL).

To construct a digital library education lab that will support active, collaborative, and exploratory learning, we consider the following four principles essential:

1. The lab needs to be a learning environment and an operational digital library. As in the "library school library," students can be contributors to, and users of, the digital library. They can learn and experience firsthand how a digital library operates and how the digital library supports the need of users. Their learning experience will be enriched when their work contributes to an operational digital library. The notion of being a creator and user of the lab fits well with the social networking tools used today.

2. The lab should provide easy-to-use tools and data for various digital library activities. Students need to be able to complete their assignments and hands-on practice with the latest digital library technologies and software. They need to be able to apply theories they learn to practice, and connect their assignments or projects to the practical needs of a real library and its users. Answering reference questions submitted by real users, for example, would be a valuable experience for students in reference classes.

3. The lab needs to provide a platform and a "sandbox" where students can experiment and test new ideas and new technologies. In the digital environment, it is much easier than it is in the physical environment to set up small or collaborative projects to allow students to participate in various research activities such as prototype developing, interface redesign, metadata evaluation and the development of knowledge organizing tools.

4. The lab needs to provide a demonstration space to showcase how learning and collaboration take place in a digital space. Students need to be able to work collaboratively to develop and test new ideas through the lab. The collaboration may span across time--further developing the work of previous students, for example--and across space, to allow teams from different schools and different classes to work on the same research problems.

The IPL Digital Lab

Since its development in 1995 at the University of Michigan, the Internet Public Library (IPL) has provided students with hands-on opportunities in digital collection development and reference service provision. During the first 11 years of its existence, students at the University of Michigan engaged in coursework that involved maintaining and developing the IPL's collection through link checking assignments, evaluation of user suggestions, and the development of new collections. Now that the IPL is managed by a consortium of iSchools and LIS programs, it presents an opportunity to expand into a digital laboratory for research and teaching.

We are redesigning the infrastructure of the lab and expanding its utilization to teaching and curriculum at Drexel University and other member institutions.

In addition to the IPL's public functions to maintain a selective digital collection and provide search and reference services, we are creating a new branch of the IPL to focus on supporting teaching and research with collections, data and services of the IPL; thus emerges the IPL Lab. Before it is developed into a fully-functional digital library education lab based on the principles we outlined earlier, this IPL branch is represented by a wiki and supported with various teaching and research activities. The wiki provides access to a set of projects related to IPL research or class work. In the past several terms, students in courses on digital libraries, digital reference, and human computer interaction have done assignments and projects through the lab and the IPL. Students' responses to these assignments and activities are very positive.

Below we provide brief descriptions of the students' learning activities in several relevant courses. They are examples of how the IPL Lab supports students to work with an existing library and actual data and, in this way, combine theory with practice.

Metadata Evaluation. As an assignment for a digital libraries class, students are asked to evaluate a set of metadata records randomly selected from IPL collections. In this assignment, students have access to an IPL backend database that is not available to general users. They learn about the IPL collections policy and metadata schema before trying to evaluate and modify individual metadata records according to the policy and schema. Through this exercise, students learn how to evaluate metadata records for their completeness, accuracy, consistency, and usefulness. They also learn and discover what the typical metadata problems are in an operational digital library. The latter seems to be more interesting to the students and contributes more to their learning process. Students are particularly satisfied when they know their work actually helps to improve IPL collections as their final products are submitted to the IPL collections manager.

Collaborative Interface Design. Courses in our curriculum that are related to interface design include Human Computer Interaction, Information Architecture, Collaborative Learning and Digital Libraries. The IPL Lab provides various supports to students in these classes to practice their design. In one course, the assignment is to redesign the IPL searching and browsing interfaces. In another course, the design is for an IPL support for social networking. In the third course, the design is for metadata authoring tools. The IPL platform allows students to collaborate on their designs, to evaluate each other's designs, and to test their designs with real data and real users. Currently, we are implementing various APIs and Web 2.0 technologies to facilitate future interface design and testing.

Digital Reference. The IPL question-answering service is a Web-based asynchronous system that uses a Web form for requests and responses sent via email to the patron. Students enrolled in reference courses in LIS programs have the opportunity to serve as volunteers to answer questions received from the general public. The student learning process begins with extensive training on IPL policies and procedures, and oversight by IPL staff. Students review the IPL training manual, complete a short quiz, and then complete a practice question before they are approved to answer questions received from actual patrons. Agosto, Abels, Mon, and Harris (2009) detail the IPL hands-on reference experience. This is the original course assignment associated with the IPL and has been offered to students in LIS programs since shortly after the initial development of the IPL. During any given term, the IPL may have as many as 500 student volunteers answering questions from multiple LIS programs. A list of participating schools can be found on the IPL website (


The LIS community has a long history of emphasizing both theory and practice. The digital environment provides us with a new opportunity to expand our vision and create a new learning space where students can apply theories to practice. In this paper, we have discussed how a digital library education lab can be built to support active, collaborative, and exploratory learning across geographic boundaries and time periods We describe our current efforts in building the IPL Lab for this purpose and how the Lab has supported various class activities in our school. However, as was noted above, in the digital space, the digital lab does not have to be confined by the physical location or school boundaries. We believe that a collaborative digital lab would be beneficial to multiple LIS schools and digital library education as a whole.


Agosto, D. E., Abels, E. G., Mon, L., & Harris, L. E. (2009). The Internet Public Library as service-based experiential learning. In L. Roy, K. Jensen, & A. H. Meyers (Eds.), Service learning: Linking library education and practice (pp. 133-141). Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

Brancolini, K. R., & Mostafa, J. (2006). Developing a digital libraries education program: JCDL 2006 Workshop report. D-Lib Magazine, 12(7/8). Retrieved from:

Cogburn, D. L. (2003). HCI in the so-called developing world: What's in it for everyone. Interactions, 10(2), 80-87.

Kouzes, R. T., Myers, J. D., & Wulf, W. A. (1996). Collaboratories: Doing science on the Internet. Computer, 29(8), 40-46.

Mon, L., Abels, E. G., Agosto, D. E., Japzon, A., Most, L., Masnik, M., & Hamann, J. (2008). Remote reference in U.S. public library practice and LIS education. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 49(3), 180-194.

Pomerantz, J., Oh, S., Yang, S., Fox, E. A., & Wildemuth, B. M. (2006). The Core: Digital library education in library and information science programs. D-Lib Magazine, 12(11). Retrieved from:

Romero, L. (1995). The cataloging laboratory: The active learning theory applied to the education of catalogers. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 21(1), 3-17.

Saracevic, T., & Dalbello, M. (2001). A survey of digital library education. In E. S. Aversa, T. B. Hahn, & C. Manley (Eds.), Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science and Technology: Vol. 38. (pp. 209-223). Medford, NJ: Information Today.

Spink, A., & Cool, C. (1999). Education for digital libraries. D-Lib Magazine, 5(5). Retrieved from:

Twidale, M. B., & Nichols, D. M. (2009). Computational sense for digital librarians. In Y. L. Theng, S. Foo, D. Goh, & J. C. Na (Eds.), Handbook of research on digital libraries: Design, development, and impact (pp. 552-561). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Xia Lin

College of Information Science and Technology, Drexel University, 3141 Chestnut Street,

Philadelphia, PA 19104-2875. E-mail:

Eileen Abels

College of Information Science and Technology, Drexel University, 3141 Chestnut Street,

Philadelphia, PA 19104-2875. E-mail:
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Author:Lin, Xia; Abels, Eileen
Publication:Journal of Education for Library and Information Science
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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